Analysis Of Symbolism In The Interpreter Of Maladies

The short story Interpreter of Maladies, written by Jhumpa Lahiri, grapples with a variety of issues symbolized through everyday objects. The story takes place in India, during a trip taken by the Das family, who have little connection to their Indian heritage. Told from the perspective of Mr. Kapasi, a middle-aged Indian tour guide who was hired by the Das family to take them to the Sun Temple. The story begins with the parents arguing about who should take Tina to the bathroom at a nearby rest stop (an early sign of the parents’ marital strife). Mr Kapasi judges the Das’ interactions with their children, noticing that they are not reprimanded if they misbehave, and their children do not respect their elders. During the trip, Mr. Kapasi talks about his second job, interpreting for doctors. Mrs. Das is intrigued by his job, calling it “romantic” and asking to hear more. However, Mrs. Das’ enthusiasm about the job and use of the word “romantic” leads Mr. Kapasi to develop feelings and to start fantasizing about her. She says she no longer loves her husband and that she is unhappy with her life and family. Mrs. Das hopes that Mr. Kapasi can help her in the same way he helps his patients, by interpreting these emotions and making her feel better. Lahiri’s use of symbolism illuminates the fault-lines in the failing marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Das. The subtle yet profound hints given by Lahiri allow the reader to better understand the issues between the couple. In specific, Mr. and Mrs. Das’ failing marriage is symbolized by the camera, puffed rice, and the nail polish.

The first example of symbolism in Interpreter of Maladies is Mr. Das’ camera. The camera Mr. Das carries with him represents the ignorance he has for the surrounding world, and the problems that his marriage faces. When Mrs. Das refuses to leave the car when they visit the monastic dwellings, Mr. Das tries to change her mind because they “could use one of these pictures for our Christmas card this year”. Mr. Das attempts to use the camera to construct an image of family life that does not exist in the reality his photographs seem to capture. His children and his wife are distant, but Mr. Das tries to put them in pictures that represent and depict affection. Whether an earnest attempt to create a family dynamic which does not exist or willful ignorance of his family’s unhappiness, Mr. Das’s insistence on using his camera underscores the underlying collapse of his seemingly happy family.

In addition to the camera, Lahiri uses the puffed rice to symbolize the clash of incompatible personalities within the Das family. Specifically, the puffed rice that Mrs. Das has with her for most of the story represents her bland personality and morality. Towards the beginning of the story, Mrs. Das bought a bag of puffed rice that she carries around throughout most of the story. Mrs. Das herself is unloving and careless with those close to her in a way that resembles her treatment of the rice.When Mrs. Das gets out of the car and walks around the monastery, she carelessly scatters the puffed rice along the trail at the monastic dwellings, never thinking about the danger her actions pose to others. Even when she realizes the danger to Bobby, as monkeys surround and terrify him, Mrs. Das does not take any responsibility for the situation, just as she refuses to acknowledge any guilt about her affair with Mr. Das’ friend: “She opened the car door and began walking up the path, wobbling a little on her square wooden heels, reaching into her straw bag to eat handfuls of puffed rice. It fell through her fingers, leaving a zigzagging trail, causing a monkey to leap down from a tree and devour the little white grains''. Puffed rice, insubstantial and bland, represents Mrs. Das’ moral shortcomings. They are, if not sinister, a more subtle flaw which emerges from careless mistakes and moral negligence. Though Mrs. Das is young and attractive, she is spiritually “vanilla.” Her love for her children and husband is mere ritual and lacks the spiritual substance of “true” love. Her depression distances her from her family, but she holds a secret that could tear the entire family apart. The rice captures the degree to which Mrs. Das’s love is both carelessly scattered and spiritually bland—like the flavor of rice.

The third and final example of symbolism is nail polish. The nail polish that Mrs. Das applies to herself shows how self absorbed Mrs. Das is. Mrs. Das is extremely bored during the long car ride to the monastery, so she feels the urge to apply nail polish. Tina, their daughter, wants nail polish applied to her fingers as well, but Mrs. Das is only frustrated that Tina interferes and ruins her nail polish. Meanwhile, everyone in the car is intoxicated by the smell of the nail polish, but Mrs. Das is too preoccupied with her own desires to realize the fallout of her actions. “While Mr. Das adjusted his telephoto lens, Mrs. Das reached into her straw bag and pulled out a bottle of colorless nail polish, which she proceeded to stroke on the tip of her index finger”. Lahiri purposefully chose the nail polish to be colorless, because it represents Mrs. Das’ personality, emotionless. The fumes from the nail polish represent her toxic behavior that has had a monumental effect on her family. “The little girl stuck out her hand. “Mine too. Mommy, do mine too.``''Leave me alone,” Mrs. Das said, blowing on her nail and turning her body slightly. “You’re making me mess up”(Lahiri 48). Mrs. Das is so self centered that she cares more about how her nails look, rather than paying attention to her daughter. The ignorance that Mrs. Das has for her mistakes is mindblowing, rather than face the misery she has caused, Mrs. Das hides behind her sunglasses and disengages from her family.

All three children in the story act poorly as a result of inadequate parenting. They misbehave to get the attention of their parents due to the constant distancing from one another. All the issues that occur within the family are a result of poor parenting. Lahiri uses symbols such as the camera to represent obliviousness to the surrounding world, puffed rice that shows ignorance that Mr. and Mrs. Das show to the people around them, and the nail polish to represent how Mrs. Das truly feels about herself. Lahiri uses symbolism as a tool to illuminate the malady in the Das family.          

16 December 2021
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